Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Road to Plagiarism

Last week, I ran a guest column, something I've rarely done on the CI blog. The essence of that column -- and many of the exact words -- first appeared on Smoke and Meers, a blog by KC advertising leader Sam Meers. Unfortunately, Sam was not the author who submitted the column to me, nor did he receive writing credit.

There's only one word for it, plagiarism. Let me make this crystal clear: Plagiarism, in any form, is wrong. Good intentions are no excuse.

I have known the man who submitted the column for years, and have never had any reason to doubt his talent or integrity. He read Sam's column and used it as inspiration, adding his own true experiences. He included Sam's word-for-word pay-off paragraph on balance -- which he originally attributed to Sam. Unfortunately, he deleted that attribution line before sending me the copy.

In his words: I thought I had tweaked it and changed it up enough to fit our order of events that I -- when trying to shorten my version -- deleted that attribution line. I ovbiously never went back and compared it with the original.

He was wrong. He has apologized to me. He will apologize to Sam. I sincerely apologize to Sam, and to you.

So, what have we learned?
  1. Inspiration is good. Plagiarism is bad.
    When I talk about "stealing" ideas, I am talking about taking something as inspiration and making it your own. For example, my friend Linda wrote a sestina. I am taking that idea, and the words you provided, and writing a sestina. The idea came from Linda. The six end words came from you. The poem will be mine.
  2. Think before you hit "send."
    My first reaction to Sam's email informing me of this unfortunate situation was an inappropriate, knee-jerk, "how dare you think I would plagiarize copy" response. The immediacy of electronic media is dangerous. As my brother's old poster used to say, "Make sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in gear."
  3. Ask for help.
    I asked two valued members of my creative team for help. I sent them the materials, and my suggested response, considered their input and changed my copy. Thank you for always being there.
  4. Mistakes happen. And reputations matter.
    I respect the words and reputations of other writers. I also value my own words -- and my reputation. In this business, in this town, reputation is a "make or break" factor. Part of my reputation is built on being Mama Bear. This time, one of my cubs made a big mistake. It's a mistake he's not likely to make again.
Many, many years ago, I did something my mother-in-law thought was wrong. She told me how she felt, and why she felt that way. She also told me she would never mention it again.

She never mentioned it again. Lesson learned.


Anonymous said...

A difficult situation handled like the pro you are, Jan! Thanks for sharing this lesson with us all.

Duane Hallock said...

Jan, I just discovered your blog 20 minutes ago as I was reading Sam Meers' latest post. I've scanned your previous posts and realize I've been missing out on some great content. I have already subscribed to your blog for two reasons:

First, I'm impressed with the creative content and want to read more.

Second, I'm more than impressed with the professional way in which you handled the ethical issue of plagiarism.

As a PR professional, I am proud to see top practitioners such as you blend ethics and creativity in such an artful way. Thank you!

Jan said...

Thank you, Anonymous! And, Duane -- your kind words made my day! Welcome to the Creative Instigation team!!